Stanley Kramer: Producer & Director

Gene Hackman in Kramer's 1977 political thriller The Domino Principle

Gene Hackman in Kramer’s 1977 political thriller The Domino Principle

Perhaps more than anyone else ever associated with the motion picture industry Stanley Kramer has been and still is a name that signifies quality and prestige, intelligence and social conscience.  But as a director and a producer there is a marked difference in the films bearing Kramer’s name.  With the advantage of hindsight, of looking back over his entire filmography, the films that Kramer produced and did not direct seem to hold up better over time.  Perhaps that is because of the skill possessed by those filmmakers whom he contracted to helm these films.  But I would argue there is a coherent stylistic similarity between the majority of these films that is indicative of the cause of the longevity of these films.

Consider Champion (dir. Mark Robson, 1949), The Member Of The Wedding (dir. Fred Zinnemann, 1952), The Wild One (Laszlo Benedek, 1953), The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (dir. Roy Rowland, 1953), and A Child Is Waiting (dir. John Cassavetes, 1963) and one is struck by the fact that each of these films, with their diverse styles and contents, have at their core a strong emotional relationship between two characters.  Champion concerns itself with the familial bonds between two brothers (Kirk Douglas and Arthur Kennedy) that are tested and ultimately broken by the elder brother’s ambition and greed.  The other four films mentioned above are concerned, at their core, with the search for a surrogate parent.  In The Member Of The Wedding Frankie (Julie Harris) finds a surrogate mother in Berenice (Ethel Waters) in the same way Marlon Brando finds a “mother” figure in Mary Murphy in The Wild One, or the father/son relationship between Tommy Rettig and Peter Lind Hayes in The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr.T.  Besides The Champion, the other exception to this trend is A Child Is Waiting whose central relationship is between Judy Garland whose well-meaning music teacher finds the child she has always wanted in Bruce Ritchey.  So though these films are essentially “message movies” designed to propagate contemporary progressive views, they work in equal parts as character studies.  And like most successful character studies in American cinema the narrative design of these five films seeks to illuminate the character of the protagonist via the protagonist’s search for emotional fulfillment in the external form of another character.

Kirk Douglas in The Champion

Kirk Douglas in The Champion

One can pinpoint the application of this technical trend in the productions Kramer himself directed quite easily, particularly in Ship Of Fools (1965), Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967), and The Domino Principle (1977).  But even these films are incapable of being as human in their treatment of character as those productions helmed by other directors primarily because the narratives of these films are so heavily over burdened with characters.  Filmicly, in his role as producer, Kramer is typically quite skilled at constructing his prestige ensemble dramas, like Judgement At Nuremberg (1961).  But for Kramer the director the focus, albeit, the priority of the direction in such cases is on the concept proposed by the narrative and all of its components included.  So where Zinnemann or Cassavetes may down-play the preachiness of the script, Kramer embraces it, arranges, and choreographs the performances to cater to it.

-Robert Curry

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